À l'aube de ladémocratie en Afrique du Sud, le gouvernement nouvellement élu a cherché àfaciliter la transformation du paysage politique en développant des quartiersadministratifs et des projets patrimoniaux qui refléteraient les idéaux d'unrégime politique démocratique. Ils visaient à créer des lieux quifavoriseraient de nouvelles valeurs et une nouvelle identité, guidés par la visiond’une «renaissance africaine». Les deux projets décrits dans cet article sontissus de cette initiative et ont placé la profession d'architecture de paysageau centre de la formation de paysages qui symbolisent de nouvelles identitésbasées sur la culture et la tradition africaines. Rétrospectivement, l'auteurdécrit l'évolution des projets et discute de leur impact sur la société, ets'ils peuvent être considérés comme emblématiques et "iconiques".
At the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the newly elected Government sought to facilitate transformation of the political landscape through the development of Administration Precincts and heritage Legacy Projects that would reflect the ideals of a new democratic political dispensation. They aimed to create places that would promote values and identity, guided by the vision of an ‘African Renaissance’. The two projects described in this paper originate from this initiative and placed the landscape architectural profession at the centre of the formation of landscapes that symbolize new identities based on African culture and tradition. Looking back, the author describes the evolution of the projects and discusses their impact on society, and whether they could be considered iconic.
It has been 27 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections. At the dawn of the new democracy, the nation was seeking a new identity and for many South Africans and politicians, it was to be an identity based on African culture and tradition.
Shortly after the inauguration of President Mandela on 17 April 1994 there was an initiative to create heritage places that reflected the government’s aspirations to “facilitate the transformation of the heritage landscape so that museums and other heritage institutions reflect the ideals of a democratic political dispensation” (Department of Sports, Art and Culture, 2004). The Government sought to create ‘African’ places that would espouse new values, identity and whose narrative deviated from the Apartheid past and to a new African perspective, which symbolized a “reborn’’ and “free” nation (Mandela, 1999). Or, as President Thabo Mbeki (1998) suggested, a vision of the future embedded in an ‘African Renaissance’.
During this formative period, the office of “The Presidency [was] inundated with requests from diverse sources for the establishment of monuments, museums, and statues in memory and recognition of great leaders and historic events’’ (Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, 2004). As a result, the Department identified Legacy Projects to address these requests. Legacy Projects which comprised “dynamic infrastructure which will allow for future inclusion of other heritage institutions, monuments and museums”, were identified and put forward for consideration and approval by Cabinet (Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, 2004). Eventually, ten pilot projects were approved as a mechanism to establish commemorative structures based on a coherent set of principles and criteria that lead “the way towards the fundamental and irrevocable transformation of the South African heritage landscape” (Mashatile, 2010: xv).
One of these is Freedom Park, Tshwane. Another project, though not heritage per se but a development that defers to these sentiments, is the Mpumalanga Government Complex, Mbombela.
The authorities responsible for implementing the projects recognized their potential to “correct the distortions and omissions of [past] culturally exclusive practices, … by drawing on the histories and cultures of all South Africans” (Mashatile (2010: xv).
The Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Public Works, Roads and Transport, Mpumalanga Provincial Government, Mr J S Mabona, on completion of the Mpumalanga Legislature Complex in 2001, stated:
The dream of a building, which embodies our modern African democracy, has been realized in the Mpumalanga Province. … In the spirit of democracy this building is the result of a process begun by the government, and executed by its diverse people in a manner, which will allow future generations to look with pride at the achievements of the African Renaissance – cultural, aesthetic, social and political (Malan and McInerny, (2001:9).
And then President Mbeki, at the launch of Freedom Park, declared: "Together, through Freedom Park, we will acknowledge the central role played by South Africans from different parties to ensure that our country becomes free and democratic. … Freedom Park should therefore make us walk the entire South African history. When we have done this, we should then appreciate our country, its people, their diversity and their determination to build a united nation with a common vision, aspirations and goals. Freedom Park must help to heal the divisions of the past and work for reconciliation" (Mbeki, 2002: 26-27).
The Freedom Park was eventually classified as a Grade 1 project in terms of the National Heritage Act, No. 25 of 1999, as it would be a “heritage resource with qualities so exceptional that they are of special national significance” (Government Gazette, 1999:18). Or as Freedom Park Trust’s Vision states, it would become “a leading national and international icon of humanity and freedom” (Freedom Park Trust, 2004:1).
Based on this evidence, it can be reasoned that the authorities were seeking to establish places of exceptional quality with a clear African identity that could arguably achieve iconic status. However, what does this mean, given that the word, iconic, is carelessly applied to everything from fashion to logos to public personalities? And when you consider it in conjunction with ‘landscapes’, you arrive at the term, ‘iconic landscapes’. The premise behind this term requires elaboration on the two words that comprise it.
‘Iconic’ refers to the quality of a place which is a “popularly-recognized symbol of something larger than itself”(Rybczynski 2008). And an ‘iconic’ place would be ”widely recognized, well-established and known for its distinctive excellence”(Merriam-Webster 2021).
It is also important to understand the concept of landscape in relation to architecture, as these are the primary elements that would make up iconic places. Landscape architecture is often considered the setting in which new development takes place. However, Jodidio (2014:6) suggests that “landscape architecture is defined not only as the formation of gardens but also of buildings that have an intimate relation to nature”. He elaborates (Jodidio 2014:6),
“Architectural realizations that take into account their natural setting may not be considered landscape architecture per se, and yet it is the integration of the two elements (landscape and architecture) that makes the grandeur of many of the best-known historic realizations [icon places?].”
An African example is Great Zimbabwe. Here the architecture and its natural setting merge to form a place where culture and nature express themselves in a beautiful, spiritual and symbiotic relationship. Thus, when architecture and its landscape setting merge to become one entity, the artificial barrier between architecture and landscape is broken and is understood as the ‘landscape’.
Mpumalanga Government Complex, Mbombela, Mpumalanga
Mpumalanga, the ‘land of the rising sun’, was established as one of nine new provinces in South Africa that emerged in 1994 from a history of racial and cultural intolerance as one of the world’s new free democracies. In July that year, it was decided to locate the legislative and executive functions of the provincial government in a single complex of buildings in the provincial capital, Mbombela. The outcome of a design competition was a building complex described by the winning architects, which “responded directly to its setting, which curves as it overlooks the meeting of the Crocodile and Nels rivers and has the purpose of being a place of meeting, gathering and enclosure, while specifically relating to a new South African context” (Co-Arch2021). In his presentation to the Cabinet soon after being awarded the contract, McInerney the lead architect at Meyer Pienaar Tayob Schnepel Inc. referred to it as being an ‘African Building’ (Malan and McInerney 2001:37). In response to a critic who had asked what was so African about the building, he argued that the completed project would be African by its respectful relationship with the site. His reply initiated an extended argument as his preconceptions were challenged. “Soon after, a friendship developed between McInerney and Motha, the project manager for the Government on this project, allowing for further discussion on questions of African architecture and traditional cultural practices. McInerney began to learn many poetic aspects unique to the African experience, and the knowledge gained informed the choice of material, detailing and decorative features of the final design” (Noble 2011:37).
When the landscape architects(KWPNLA Landscape Architects in Association)were appointed, the building complex had already been designed. Given the sensitive approach employed by the architects and referring to the natural environment for contextual and narrative clues, “the challenge was to create a new landscape that not only merged and enhanced the fabric of the buildings but also expressed itself with an African identity for its own sake” (Young 2012:5).
Landscape and architectural elements were combined to create places for meeting, socializing and gathering at a variety of scales. According to McInerney (2001:40), an intended design goal was to “design for interaction”. The realization of this concept is described in a statement by the architects in their retrospective on the project:
The Civic Square, Piazza, or Isigcawu, terminates the axis of the Government Boulevard. Within this area many micro-environments are provided: steps under trees, fountains, a large gathering tree and shady colonnades that encourage more intimate social interaction, while the whole is a venue for large-scale social gathering, and for public demonstrations which convey the will of the people to the elected leaders (Malan and McInerney 2001:8).
However, its design had presented a challenge for the designers. It was pivotal to the entire scheme as was to be a significant public space. In Motha’s mind, the complex’s design needed to refer to historical patterns of African governance and that “a symbolic reference to the old African ways should also be recognised” (Noble 2011:38-39). The landscape architecture responded to this critique by including trees in the plaza as a symbol of an African Court. A ‘gathering’ tree was prominently located, recalling the kgotla, the designated space in a village where “African elders would meet outdoors under a tree to debate political concerns and to administer justice” (Noble 2011:38). Paving patterns radiate from this focal point, to engage with a water feature located on the opposite side of the plaza.
Designed to respond to the importance of the civic square and to “be interpreted by the people of Mpumalanga from their differing cultural perspectives”, the fountain’s main sculptural element resembles a bowl. Patterns in the granite sculpture and stainless-steel base reflect “African motifs and designs used inside the building, which relate to various indigenous cultures and back to the Iron Age motifs on the pottery shards salvaged from the site. The stylized bowl can also be interpreted as a woven basket, a piece of pottery, or in its most basic form as a sieving pan, making connections with the early gold mining activities and cultural artifacts of the region” (Young 2012:7).
Complementing these symbolic references a ‘sunken garden’ was designed as an extension of the legislature foyer. “This natural granite walled space with its featured ‘sluice’ waterfall, provides a cool, enclosed retreat that echoes aspects of the gold mining industry and the Nels and Crocodile River gorges neighbouring the site (Young 2012: 8).
The project came at a time of fluidity in which a spirit of change permeated all spheres of South African life and a time when a new African identity was being sought for the country.
“As one of the first major public buildings commissioned in a newly constituted South Africa, the Mpumalanga Provincial Government Complex challenged all those involved to enter, in some respects, uncharted waters. A sense of renewal was to be expressed not only in the desired result but also in the actual collaborative process leading towards that goal” (Malan and McInerney 2001:8).
The landscape architects addressed this challenge by designing a setting that supported and enhanced the architecture. Yet, at places, the landscape is visible as a unique and distinct art form responsive to environmental and cultural consciousness. This is somewhat analogous to and paralleled what many South Africans were trying to achieve in that honeymoon period soon after the advent of democracy. Perhaps this response symbolized the country’s diverse cultures and the emerging political agenda to promote the idea of an African Renaissance, where the overall effect of cultural interaction was harmonious and unforced and where groups would support and enhance each other yet at times maintain their unique and distinct identity.
The endeavour to introduce symbolic references to old African ways is also to be commended. These facilitated a dialogue with the cultural roots of a new democratic process albeit in a tentative manner and gave “preference to tropes of tradition and authenticity. The African signifiers, although pragmatically linked to modern needs, nevertheless rely upon realist representations of traditional themes” (Noble 2011: 53).
Whilst the project received major recognition within the professional sphere, (it won many local and international awards for both its architecture and landscape architecture) Mr Mabona’s vision for the complex was never fully met. Perhaps a shortcoming of the project is its relationship with the public realm and the idea of Isigcawu, becoming a people’s place, a ‘commons’, where the citizens of Mpumalanga could feel at home, mingle together and linger. There is no evidence that the public has taken ownership of the space and whether they see it as a popularly recognized symbol that they would want to visit, other than to protest or make a political statement.
The project did, however, succeed in changing the frame of reference for Government projects by demonstrating the importance of a multidimensional design approach that drew inspiration from the democratic ideals of a new South Africa and sought to create a place that many South Africans could identify with.
The Mpumalanga Provincial Government Complex is impressive as a distinct architectural symbol but its lack of daily use by the public and their interaction with the civic places is of concern and diminishes its significance as an iconic landscape, widely recognized, accepted and understood by the citizens of Mpumalanga.
Freedom Park, Tshwane
Approaching Pretoria from the south via the N1 motorway, one catches early glimpses of the Voortrekker Monument, its solid mass commanding a distant hilltop to one’s left. … Continuing forward, the road drops to reveal the outskirts of Pretoria and the Voortrekker Monument falls from view. Within minutes, a turn to the left captures a dramatic view of Freedom Park situated on a hilltop to one’s right. From this vantage, the S’khumbuto – a memorial within Freedom Park – embraces the crest of the Salvokop hill with its sweeping curve of low-lying stonewalls and rising poles that reach to the sky. Located here at Salvokop, Freedom Park has initiated an explicit dialogue with the Apartheid legacy of the Voortrekker Monument. One’s approach into the capital city (Tshwane)is framed by the contrasting presence of these two monuments – the sensitive and ethereal expression of the S’khumbuto standing in measured contrast to the more domination Neo-Classical mass of the Voortrekker Monument (Noble 2011:217-218).
Serote notes (in Oliphant2014:8), regarding this relationship,
“Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument share a precinct and speak of a history of a country from different perspectives. Coming generations of South Africans must come here and find a consciousness about their past. Somewhere as they hear the voices from this precinct, and as they see, feel, touch the surfaces of these containers, and they taste the air that embraces them and the containers, hopefully, they will also understand the voice that keeps saying: Reconciliation”.
South African landscape architecture has few examples where African culture and landscape design inform each other to create a place that confronts them about their perceptions of the past and visions for the future. Freedom Park is arguably such a place! The story that it would tell had to come from the nation, and this would be difficult since South Africa is a diverse and multifaceted society. In its attempt to solicit a narrative, the Freedom Park Trust (FPT) started the process of accessing the public’s notion of what it should become. Research took place, public focus group workshops were held and extensive consultation with artists, historians, academics and a variety of rural and urban communities was carried out. Young explains that through this process, the framework for the story began to materialize. It was tedious and fraught with many political, cultural, and religious issues but slowly it began to shape (2014:196).
The focus of the narrative was to retell the tale of South Africa’s various and diverse communities by, “Rediscovering their history, retelling their stories, healing the wounds of the past and looking toward a progressive, united future” (FPT nd:1). Young explains that the design concept first referred to the natural processes and restoring a semblance of the original natural order to the site. Healing, then, was one of the key metaphors which structured the narrative at many levels. Whereas Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and Ubuntu philosophies were referenced to establish the relationship and layout of the various elements across the site.
“It was imperative for the designers to understand the entire site as, ‘the Garden’. It is within this garden, the greater garden, the collective, that other gardens or elements occur but always with reference back to ‘the Garden’ (the collective that is Freedom Park), their importance confirmed because of their relationship to the garden; the healthy garden, the whole garden. Thus the Garden is symbolic and makes associations and references to Ubuntu and the aspirations of Freedom Park” (Young 2012:201).
The landscape is the medium through which the stories of the places at Freedom Park are told, both individually and collectively. According to Raman (2014:46),
“Spaces, as conceived in architecture and landscapes, become places when we attach meaning to those spaces” . Landscape plays a significant role in achieving this goal as “the idea of a park, as opposed to a monument for freedom, is the narrative with constituent elements”.
These elements comprise places of healing and contemplation (Isivivane),a sanctuary and outdoor amphitheatre (S’khumbuto),an interactive museum (//hapo), a hospitality suite for visiting dignitaries (Moshate),a rest area (Uitspanplek), a ‘sacred lake’ (Tiva Origin) and a place for children (Sentlhalga). Each place has its specific meaning and yet is mutually integrated with the greater narrative; the story of emancipation and reconciliation of the struggles of the nation.
Upon reflection, Young suggests, “In telling this South African story at Freedom Park and by applying landscape narrative as the main ordering and referencing device, the design anticipates the audience’s reactions, perceptions and experiences of place such that the landscape, with its natural and cultural references, becomes visible, tangible and palpable, giving form to an experience that aesthetically, emotionally and spiritually engages visitors” (2010:210). Research, several years later, although focused on Isivivane, seems to verify this statement.
The study found that a cross-section of society could understand and relate to the inferred meaning of Isivivane’s various landscape elements and, in so doing, enabled people to attribute an individual and a collective meaning to the place.
Despite some aspects of Freedom Park being fraught with political issues as to its purpose and significance and its overt focus on African values, the study clearly shows that, by inserting sacred African stories into a public open space, their meanings have had a positive impact on most peoples’ perception and reaction to the place (Young and Vosloo 2020:24).
The study also confirmed that “Isivivane’s features …effectively serve its intended emotional, spiritual, and communal functions. Although many [features] reflect a specific African cultural perspective or set of values, they can be understood in universal terms” and do not alienate people (Young and Vosloo 2020:24). Finally, the study found that Isivivane is an important post-apartheid commemorative place that successfully acts as a place of reflection and healing; and enables a collective South African identity (Young and Vosloo 2020:24).
Interpretation and significance
Freedom Park is decidedly based on a grand narrative and Raman advocates that monuments of this nature are perhaps necessary, “It is possible to argue that despite South Africa’s transition to democracy, socio-economic deprivation prevails and grand aspirational statements may be required in the interim” (2009:14) until comprehensive freedom (including economic) is obtained.
A walk-through Freedom Park weaves the story of the history, culture and economic events that shaped the country. The challenge of its designers was to introduce people to this narrative through a landscape ‘lens’ that emphasises African culture, symbolism and meaning in an abstract manner, so as not to alienate any cultural group. Noble (2011:251) notes “Freedom Park is in search of a deeply authentic and indigenous identity– a naturalness of the skin. In the early stages of the Park, design interventions were tied to nature, landscape and ritual and in so doing, the Park wished to achieve an immediacy of presence. ... Realisation [of the design] is nevertheless, linked to indigenous themes and mostly by virtue of landscaping and the inclusion of the Sculpture of Ascending Reeds while building elements are either sunken or downplayed”.
Furthering the importance of the place and perhaps its iconic status, Joubert (2009:98) emphatically states “By respecting the subtlety of African symbolism and tactfully realising it on a monumental scale, the project was able to convincingly capture a shared history and a sensitive subject”. The importance of landscape is again highlighted when she (2009:98) advocates
“Perhaps the veneration of landscape – the common bond of all South Africans – is the ultimate vehicle for an African architectural language in the operative sense of the word. By using landscape to encapsulate memory, instead of the reverse, Freedom Park inaugurates the African monument”.
Freedom Park, like the Mpumalanga Government Complex, has been recognized for its design excellence, both nationally and internationally. However, a major challenge remains for this national legacy project. Will it be embraced by all South Africans as an authentic representation of their national identity and be a place of reconciliation and healing? The research at Isivivane suggests this would be the case, and that at least an aspect of Freedom Park has achieved iconic status because it is a ‘popularly-recognized symbol of something larger than itself’. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that other aspects of Freedom Park, do not yet have widespread political acceptance, which has resulted in poor public patronage.
The two projects discussed in the paper pushed the profession beyond its limits and advanced the practice of post-Apartheid landscape architecture. According to Noble, the Riverside Government Complex African identity is mostly derived from material finishes and décor. Freedom Park, on the other hand, promoted an authenticity of indigenous forms through a design narrative derived from extensive public engagement and commissioned research processes, which informed interventions drawn from nature and the significance of indigenous myths and practices (2011:252).
Together, the projects illustrate the critical role of landscape architecture in the formation of iconic landscapes.
It is evident that the designers grappled with the issues of social and environmental responsiveness derived from an empathetic translation of African culture, tradition and visions of the future. And that these are required to move the profession away from a Western model and towards one which seeks to express African identity, authenticity and ownership.
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All images by Graham Young except for the Aerial of Freedom Park. The image was retrieved from a downed drone - owner unknown.
Mpumalanga Government Complex
Landscape Architects: KWPNLA Landscape Architects in Association (an association of KWPCreate and Newtown Landscape Architects)
Architects: Meyer Pienaar Tayob Schnepel (MPTS)
Landscape Architects: NBGM Landscape Architects (an association of Newtown Landscape Architects and GreenInc)
Architects: OCA Architects (an association of GAPP Architects and Urban Designers, Mashabane Rose Architects and MMA Design Studio)